3Sixty

3Sixty

Easy, Not Queasy

There’s a scientific explanation behind air travel-induced nausea. Captain Lim Khoy Hing explains this symptom and what to do for a more enjoyable flight. 

Words: Captain Lim Khoy Hing   Images: Getty Images & Corbis

An air traveller once told me that his 12-year-old son, who used to be comfortable flying long haul, had recently begun to experience motion or air sickness. The vomiting would begin before leaving home, and continue throughout the flight.

     Although his son enjoyed travelling, the constant vomiting was not only annoying but unpleasant too. He wanted to know the cause behind it and how to treat it, so that their travels would be more pleasant in the future. 

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A CONFLICT OF THE SENSES 

Vomiting is usually a result of motion sickness. This is caused by a conflict between what is being sensed by the eyes and the ears. The inner ears detect the motion of the plane, but the eyes, which are able to focus within the plane, do not. The brain receives conflicting signals and that is how nausea normally begins. 

     This also explains the queasy feeling before the onset of actual vomiting. About one in three people are prone to motion sickness, which includes mild conditions when on a boat or in a car. Nearly two out of three people are susceptible, especially in more severe conditions when flying. 

     There’s no difference between motion sickness as experienced at sea or in the air. Either way, the result is that some people experience nausea first before vomiting in airplanes, cars or on roller coaster rides. 

A PSYCHOLOGICAL RESPONSE 

The end result of motion sickness is the onset of vomiting. Vomiting is the way the body reacts to something abnormal going on internally. Medically, it is the psychological defence against poisons (neurotoxins). The organ in the body responsible for inducing vomiting is the brain. Why is that? Well, the brain feels the motion, but the eyes do not see it. A good example is when you are in the cabin of a plane and you have no visual reference to the outside, or, when you are in a ship with no windows. The inner ear tells the brain that it senses motion, but the eyes inform the brain that everything is not moving and remaining still.

     Because of this conflict of the senses, the brain comes to the conclusion that one of the senses is hallucinating, probably caused by poison ingestion. The immediate response of the brain is to induce vomiting by expelling the poison.

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HELP YOUR CHILDREN 

Some children are more prone to motion sickness than others. The aforementioned boy’s non-stop vomiting may have other causes. Perhaps, it may be more psychological in nature because he may be thinking about previous episodes, which may trigger anxiety. A medical specialist would be better qualified to provide an accurate diagnosis, especially one with special skills in diseases of the ear and the nervous system. 

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     In any case, one way to reduce motion sickness is to encourage your child to focus on a distant point outside the plane. Avoid activities such as reading or playing hand-held video games where the eyes stay focused inside during the journey.

     A child on the verge of nausea may feel better when he or she is able to get some fresh air, and till then, should avoid strong-smelling foods or snacks. Get the child to fight queasiness by munching dry crackers, but avoid greasy and hard-to-digest food.

MY STRUGGLE WITH MOTION SICKNESS 

My experience with motion sickness started during my early flying lessons at the flight training school at RAF Church Fenton in the United Kingdom. Each time I was airborne in rough weather, the flying manoeuvres made me feel sick. It was a great embarrassment as the motion sickness hampered my flight training. 

     As a student, I did not carry any sick bag and the only ‘containers’ available were my leather flying gloves! In the end, I got over it and graduated, but one of my flying colleagues, who could not overcome the motion sickness, was sent home, dashing his dream of becoming a pilot!

     Fresh air can relieve motion sickness, while odours can exacerbate it. My second experience of motion sickness was actually triggered by a foul odour on the ground. 

     This happened when I hitched a ride at the back of a crammed sports car. I had wanted to get out of the flight training school for a weekend in London. 

     I quickly regretted the free ride as it made me feel very sick. I could not withstand the foul odour from the leather seats. The front was occupied by my colleague’s girlfriend and I was too embarrassed to tell them of my most uncomfortable situation.

     I don’t know how I managed to hold it in, but I emptied the contents of my stomach as soon as we arrived in London as I was extremely sick from the ride. So, odours may sometimes trigger carsickness when one is seated in an enclosed space.

OVERCOMING NAUSEA 

Symptoms of motion sickness normally stop when the motion that causes it ceases. However, this is not always true. There are travellers who continue to experience such symptoms for even a few days after the journey. Whilst in flight, one useful suggestion as stated above is to simply look out of the window or gaze toward the horizon in the direction of travel. This helps to re-orient the inner sense of balance, aligning motion with vision. Additionally, when you are flying, sit by the window and look outside. Choose a seat over the wings where the motion is minimised.

     Another method for relieving common and mild sickness is chewing. Just chewing in general seems to reduce adverse effects of the conflict between vision and balance. 

     Medical researchers have not confirmed the effectiveness of certain remedies such as ginger products, inhaling the scent of camphor or Chinese Tiger Balm, although anecdotes suggest that they may help. 

     Some modern medications can help prevent motion sickness and they are best taken before travelling. Please consult your family doctor for the specific medications, but any such prescriptions are best taken before the symptoms start.

     One can get used to motion sickness over time like I did, especially if one understands the triggering factors. Even great astronauts like Frank Borman, who was in the mission flying around the Moon on the Apollo 8, was affected by dizziness and nausea. With this, I hope you have a peaceful and pleasant flight. 


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     Captain Lim Khoy Hing is a former AirAsia Airbus A320 and AirAsia X A330/A340 pilot who also used to fly the Boeing 777. He has logged a total of more than 25,500  flying hours and is now a Simulator Flight Instructor with AirAsia X. In his spare time, he shares his opinion on aviation issues with others. For more air travel and aviation stories, check out his website, ‘Just About Flying’ at  www.askcaptainlim.com.

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     Capt. Lim’s first book, Life in the Skies, has just been released. You can purchase it onboard all AirAsia and AirAsia X flights or online at AirAsia Megastore at www.airasiamegastore.com/life-in-the-skies.html. It is also available in all major book stores in Malaysia and Singapore. Enjoy the great collection of articles, anecdotal stories and observations of this veteran aviator in this book.

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